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Welcome to Coon Rapids, Iowa.

And why did my visit there remind me of the American church?

I was in Coon Rapids last August to hike at the Whiterock Conservancy, a 5,500 acre land trust. It’s impressive — offering hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, camping, a wedding venue, and more. It’s well maintained. Good signage, some in both English and Spanish. The outhouse was a composting toilet! These people are doing things right.

The hike we chose on a lazy Sunday afternoon included a stretch right down Coon Rapids’ Main Street. It reminded me of the tale of humorist Bill Bryson when visiting Pella, Iowa on a Sunday afternoon in the 1960s. He and his parents were afraid to get out of the car, fearing that only a massive leak of toxic gas could explain the absolute absence of any people and any activity!

Google says that Coon Rapids’ population is 1,300. It peaked in 1950, with 1,675. While Main Street was like a ghost town on the day we visited, there were fresh, bright banners hanging on the lampposts. We saw big, creative public art constructed out of old farm equipment, along with a really nice playground and picnic area. All of it was in good shape. There’s definitely some energy and pride going on there. 

Still, the trails were very quiet and downtown was abandoned. 

All this reminded me of so many Protestant churches I know. 

The stream of disheartening information about the American church seems endless. The mainline is “in free fall,” says one sociologist. And evangelicalism’s wave has apparently crested. 

American Protestantism has been accused of hypocrisy and lethargy, racism and misogyny, stuffiness and incompetence, greed and heartlessness, anti-intellectualism and arrogance, irrelevance and insularity. I’m not here to try to convince you that all of this — and more — isn’t true.  

I also know, however, of many, many churches that are like the Whiterock Conservancy and Coon Rapids, Iowa. They are brimming with hospitality and ideas, beauty and energy. But they’ve also been dealt a very difficult hand. 

Coon Rapids is 70 miles from Des Moines, where I call home, but the metro area still only gives you 700,000 people. No matter what they do in Coon Rapids, it isn’t going to look like Time Square anytime soon. (Although I hear that post-pandemic Times Square isn’t bursting either. True? ) No doubt the people of Coon Rapids are not aiming to be Times Square. They understand very well what they’re facing — cultural and technological shifts beyond their control. Changes in agriculture have emptied rural America. The glory days may be past, but places like Coon Rapids are scrambling to remain vital. It isn’t easy.

Likewise, I believe, many churches face nearly insurmountable cultural and demographic challenges. 

I trust it is apparent that I wish White Rock Conservancy and Coon Rapids only the best. I’m pretty certain that there are days when the trails are busier and Main Street might almost be bustling. But they remind me — and frankly, relieve me, too — that you can be doing so many things right and not have much to show for it. My own disappointments and concerns are allayed somehow when I see others facing different, yet still similar, difficulties.

And in pointing to the physical attractions and improvements I saw in Coon Rapids, I’m not suggesting that the ideas and energy I see in churches are necessarily physical. It’s not just a parking space reserved for visitors or remodeled restrooms that I’m commending. In my experience, many churches have worked very hard to be genuinely warm and welcoming. The atmosphere and the attitudes are lively. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of room for more people. 

It isn’t quite the same, but I’ll admit that I always get a bit of despicable glee when I’m at a public event and their sound system malfunctions. I think to myself, “See, it’s not only the church.” Rallies, meetings, and festivals are also staffed by volunteers. Their equipment too may be sketchy. They too can be plagued by inexplicable audio gremlins. 

Is American Protestantism guilty of almost everything it is charged with? Yes, of course. But are there lots of people and churches trying really hard and doing good things? Also, yes. Are the incredible challenges facing the church also challenging other places and institutions? Yes, again. 

I hope I’m not sounding overly-defensive of a church that deserves so much criticism. I hope I’m not making excuses. I hope instead I’m simply observing that some things are beyond our control and that often the best efforts do not produce the hoped for results. 

And if you find yourself in rural, western Iowa, I encourage you to stop by Coon Rapids.

* * * * *

Fun historical fact: While it is unlikely that you will show up in Coon Rapids anytime soon, in 1959, Nikita Khrushchev did. As a peacemaking gesture, the same family that established the Whiterock Conservancy invited the Soviet leader to their farm. According to an exhibit there, the Iowa visit gave Khrushchev a bad case of “corn fever.” Soviet agronomists said he became obsessed with growing corn in settings more suited for wheat, ultimately weakening the Soviet economy! 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Kama says:

    Thank you for this, Steve. I think when pastors and congregants recognize the realities you describe (both the inevitable decline and their unique contributions for the greater good), the church is set free to be its best self.

  • Jeff Japinga says:

    My commute these days takes me through the village of Coon Valley (WI), elegantly self-described as “the heart of the Driftless area, an area never touched by glaciers (that) has produced beautiful rolling hills and spring-fed trout streams.” You could probably hike there, too, Steve, and find it equally beautiful. And, like Coon Rapids (IA), you’d find a town that shows every evidence of struggling to remain vital. There’s no high school in Coon Valley, no Wal Mart; the animal feed store appears as large as the grocery store. The aging downtown looks, well, old. My friend Jim is the interim pastor of the Lutheran church there. And if both the town and the church are struggling to survive in this world of bigger and better, well, I’m still proud to cast my lot with them. It’s easy to listen to the powerful and the popular. It takes, what, courage, faithfulness, empathy, the power of God, to hear the fading voices and lives of all God’s people. Thanks for the reminder, Steve, and for your insights always.

  • Tony Vis says:

    Thanks for including the “Fun historical fact,” once again demonstrating Iowa’s strong contribution to the end of Cold War. Iowa’s secret mission can now be revealed. Show a dictator some good Iowa corn, feed him the same, and nature will take its course, in more ways than one. Corn, the secret weapon the ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    Your last two paragraphs remind me of the timeless quote from T. S. Elliot “For us there is the trying, the rest is not our business”

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I was talking to a local environmental activist yesterday, who believes that climate change is going to result in a new internal immigration into New York State (which, aside from NYC, has been emptying for years), among other northern states. Winters will be milder and growing seasons longer, plus we are generally spared the most severe weather events that are increasing elsewhere. What will this mean for all of our rural and semi-rural RCA churches upstate? There’s no reason to suggest that returning populations will be religious, or desirous of God, but who knows?

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Commenters, and all those who pondered but didn’t comment for all sorts of reasons, thank you! Your words indicate all the wise, creative, and wonderful ways a conversation can go. The richness and diversity of your comments convey to me what community is about.

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